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Showing vs. Telling—Do You See What I See?

Monday, January 29, 2007

As a reminder, here are the three areas Sol Stein lists as vulnerable to telling rather than showing:

  1. Telling what happened before the story began
  2. Telling what a character looks like
  3. Telling what a character senses (the 5 senses) and feels (emotions)

I’ve saved the five senses until almost last (we still have to discuss character movement and active verbs, after all!) because this has to do not just with how we write our narrative, but how deeply we delve into our chosen Point of View.

I’ve been repeating two signposts of telling in previous posts (WAS and FELT), but would like to add a few more when it comes to sensing:

  • Character SAW/WATCHED (She saw him running down the street.)
  • Character HEARD (He heard a knock at the door.)
  • Character KNEW (She knew he was unlikely to ever change his mind.)
  • Character THOUGHT (He thought she might consent to stay a while longer.)
  • Character WONDERED (She wondered if he would ever stop tapping his fingers.)

Here’s how this ties in with POV. When we “tell” that a character saw something (She watched him running down the street), we are holding the reader back from truly being inside the head of the character. When I see something, I am not (usually) cognizant of the fact that I am in the process of “seeing.” I just experience the action going on outside of me. So how does this work in prose? Let’s look at an example from Candy’s point of view:

  • Candy watched Mike throw open the door and storm out of the house. OR
  • Mike threw open the door and stormed out of the house.

The second example shows the action through Candy’s eyes as she experiences it. We’re right there with her, not held back from her like an objective observer. Harken back for a moment, if you will, to the analogy of comparing Showing to actually seeing a movie and Telling to just hearing someone else talk about it. Even if the person who is telling you about the movie were to tell you exactly everything that happened and what each character did, you still would not have experienced what it had been like to actually SEE the movie. This is what happens when we tell our readers that the character is seeing, hearing, thinking, knowing, etc. Yes, occasionally we need these telling phrases to make a complete sentence/thought. But before writing them, we should ask ourselves if there is any other way to phrase the sentence so that the action is more immediate and seen only through the lens of our character’s eyes.

Most of the sensory information we include in our writing is seeing and hearing. With hearing, it’s a little harder than seeing, because what someone hears is not immediately recognizable at times. Take the example I used above, He heard a knock at the door. Most likely, he is not going to know who is on the other side of the door, and since we are talking about writing in deep POV, I as the author cannot step outside of my character to say who is knocking at the door if the POV character does not know. So I must see if there is another way I can rewrite it:

  • Mark glanced up from his book when a rhythmic tapping interrupted his concentration. “Will someone please get the door?”
  • The door rattled in its frame with the force of the pounding on the other side.
  • A knock on the door—like the sharp report of a rifle—shattered the stillness of the room.

One way some writers try to get around this is just to replace the words “he heard” with a pet-peeve phrase: “there was” (There was a knock on the door). The main reason not to use this phrasing at all (or with as limited use as you can) in your writing is that it is passive-nonspecific. In this example, we have replaced a somewhat active verb (heard) with a passive verb (was) and a specific subject (he) with a nonspecific subject (there).

Kathy Harris raised an interesting question—does this ever become second nature or is it something to worry about in revisions? My answer is Yes . . . and No. Yes, the more you train yourself to use showing rather than telling language, the easier it is to just write that way (just like when we learned to write in just one POV instead of head-hopping). Yes, when it comes time for edits, this is definitely where you want to spend time revising and rewriting. Yes, you want to make sure your draft is as well written as it can be . . . for a first draft. No, you should not beat yourself up nor give yourself writer’s block because you’re so intently focused on trying to “get it right” the first time. Your story and characterization will be stronger with showing rather than telling language, but the most important thing is to get that first draft finished!

Tomorrow, we’re going to continue this discussion with SMELLING, TASTING, and TOUCHING, and then on Wednesday we’ll KNOW, THINK, and WONDER.

But now it’s your turn. Rewrite one of these so it’s showing instead of telling (and be creative–don’t just go for the easy answer!):

  1. I saw Raymond slip the cash into his pocket.
  2. Desdemona heard a carriage rattle to a stop outside her window.
  3. Michael watched in horror as the car crashed through the guardrail and over the cliff.
11 Comments leave one →
  1. Georgiana D permalink
    Tuesday, January 30, 2007 12:37 pm

    Raymond’s eyes probed the crowd for onlookers. Seeing none, he slipped the cash–cool and crisp–into his pocket.

    Shame on Raymond–sticky fingers! Great post. Thanks for the other buzzwords to look for while editing.

    Like

  2. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Tuesday, January 30, 2007 3:26 pm

    Can I just say that little lights..nay, flashbulbs, are going off in my head with each post of showing/telling?

    Raymond whisked the twenties from the countertop quicker than a con artist playing the shell game.

    Like

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